My Dad always tells me that we as humans enjoy pondering where we will end up in the future. And no matter how hard we ponder, we will never know where we will end up. Sometimes, it is easy to think of the possibilities that await us in a couple of years, five months, or even a few weeks. I often find my thoughts wandering to questions of “where will I live in five years? What job will I have? Will I have a job?”. Accompanying those thoughts are expectations of where I want to be and what it would take to get there. Of course, with expectation brings a divide between how we think things will turn out and how things actually turn out. Sometimes those expectations are just a little unrealistic. Though it brings me sorrow, I think it might be a little late to start my astronaut application to NASA. For now, I am trying to wrestle with the expectations I carry over living in South Africa for a year. I can’t help but think how it will actually turn out….but the predicament comes with freeing my mind from expectation and hypothetical situations. Here is a story that I think can illustrate this process:
Since May 22 I have been in Montana working at a Lutheran Bible camp close to Lakeside, Montana. This slice of Montana is a contrasting place where water meets mountains and where mountains meet the sky. I suppose the reason why people call Montana “Big Sky” country in the first place is because of these powerful intersections between water, earth, and sky. It’s just amazing how far you can see from place to place.
‘Round about late June, which was the time at the end of our staff training, there was a rafting training trip that I was itching to go on. Overall, the purpose of this trip was to gain a familiarity with the river that we would raft with campers throughout the summer. Of course, we also learned the essentials of what to do in emergency situations. It goes without saying, but it is easy to gain a respect for the rivers out here. Now, this isn’t just any ordinary trip. From stories told of past years, both from my own experiences and the experiences of others, I knew this one would carry on the tradition of legendary adventure. For some reason, I always think of adventure as a challenging time of growth and renewal. Despite the risks involved, it never appears to me that adventure will bring any real danger. Sure we might be a little uncomfortable on this trip, but surely not close to becoming hypothermic or anything serious like that. Right? How wrong I was.
Seven of us rag-tag counselors partook on the trip, not including our two actual guides who were from Polson, MT…just on the south side of the lake. The setting was on the north fork of the Flathead river. Beginning in British Columbia and flowing south to Flathead Lake, the north fork is Flathead river’s northern-most tributary. Distinguishing this area apart from other such river valleys in Montana and across the United States is that the north fork is considered as a “wild and scenic” river. This means that people cannot cut or drag logs out of the river. Or for that matter, alter the landscape in any way on the shores or islands that divide the current. Efforts at preserving the north fork creates for a tricky maze of driftwood and the impending doom of logjams. If a raft were to get hung up on a log jam there would be no telling how it would turn out. A log jam means an almost certain death if a raft were to get hung up, or sucked under a log jam. Don’t worry, this story has nothing to do with getting sucked into a log jam….mainly because we all lived to tell about it.
Demarcating the western border of Glacier National Park, and with the Flathead National Forest to the west, the north fork certainly has no shortage of awe-inspiring views. Millions of years of pressure from the glaciers that once blanketed the area have yielded mighty valleys and sharp mountain tops. One great example are the nearly-vertical mountain faces of the Livingstone range in western Glacier NP, which is visible from much of the river. When I am in this neck of the Montanan wilderness, I can’t help but think of what the first pioneers to the area must have thought when they stumbled upon such jagged mountains that jut up from the prairie. Not to mention the deep spiritual connectedness the Kootenai and Blackfoot Native Americans, among other groups, had to the park for hundreds, if not thousands of years before the coming of pioneers.
Now, getting back to the trip. Four out of the seven in our group were new to counseling at camp and only two of us had experience guiding rafts down the north fork. Throughout our preparations to leave camp, my excitement grew and grew. Not only was completely stoked for those new counselors to experience one of Montana’s hidden gems, but I also was excited to get back on the river. After a few hours of gathering our gear and stacking and pumping the rafts, we were set to go. Raft time!
We arrived at the Polebridge, a tiny town on the shore of the river, set to raft just a few hours later. Truly, Polebridge is a nice town for nice people…just as long as you don’t bring your own beer or food. Thus, the process of unpacking and preparing the rafts to become “bullet proofed” took us until about three o’clock. Right as we put the boats in, the grey and looming rain clouds came rolling over the hills to the west. “Oh, just a little rain! We’re on the river…what can stop us?!”, we thought. Again, how wrong we were.
For the next five hours straight, we sat on the rafts in a windy rain storm and were soaked to the bone with a lasting chilliness. Though we did have wetsuits and splash jackets, we were cold beyond belief. During the winter months, the freezing temperatures will sometimes give a person frostbite within minutes. However, when a person’s skin is soaking wet with just-above-melting temperature water and gale-force winds to accentuate the cold, can make one feel like their soul is frozen. All joy in life is sucked out just as a Dementor sucks joy and happiness out of wizards in the “Harry Potter” series. This day was one of the most uncomfortable times in my life.
After reaching our campsite on the great northern flats, we changed out of our wet clothes to become dry. A few quick moments were met with misery, however, as we realized that we had not packed our pots and pans on our raft. Was this a dream? Or worse, a nightmare? I trudged up to the road and hitchhiked the short distance to the van so we could have some solid shelter from the rain. Little to my excitement, I discovered that the pots and pans were not in the van at all. But rather, they were…at camp! What a stinger! How would we survive? Luckily, one of our guides brought a little hand saw to cut up wood for a fire. We used damp bark to act as a barrier between the fire and our water bottles, as to heat up water without melting the plastic. Our tactic worked for some, but left many water bottles charred and melted. What else were we to do without pots and pans? We made do with roasted pita bread, salami, and provolone cheese from one of our day’s lunches. Nothing like a little smoked salami, cheese, and bread after a long day’s raft. We eventually settled down into our cozy and DRY sleeping bags to sleep.
The rest of the trip went relatively smooth as someone from camp brought the pots and pans up to our group. Luckily, we made it out alive to tell the tale. Our group bonded well and we had many great times and friendships formed throughout the remainder of the trip. It appeared, that through the hardship, we as travelers and adventurers came closer to one another. So, despite unnecessarily high expectations set in my mind from previous years to have laxidazical and easy endeavors, this year took the cake. Even if we did get a little cold and wet and had to use our wits to get through the week. Besides, it was fun!